Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The legacy of Joseph Ratzinger does not rest on the institution of “pope emeritus,” which he pioneered. The great legacy of the theology professor, the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Pope Benedict XVI is instead his theological work, which characteristically insists on the unity of faith and reason—a unity his interlocutor, the critical theorist Jürgen Habermas, acknowledged as the essence of Western culture. Ratzinger did not concede the problematization of Christianity by the modern sciences and ideological systems. To the extent that conflict existed, Christianity had not thereby been proven “unreasonable”; rather, it was a sign that the sciences ­needed to be cleansed of ideological ­influence, and the ideologies sifted for what was good and true.

Counter to legend, Ratzinger was no simplistic foe of modernity. Christianity could accommodate many of the insights of Marxism, psychoanalysis, Darwinism, and other ideologies. But he was as steadfast as he was meticulous in ruling out what did not comport with Christianity. Indeed, he was a model of this work, as cardinal and as pope. Perhaps the most ­resounding instance was his dealings with the liberation theologians, early in his tenure as prefect of the CDF.

In the early 1980s, Ratzinger had recently been appointed prefect by John Paul II. Extreme poverty and inequality were rife in Latin America, so that Marxian thought began to appeal to churchmen in that part of the world, just as Catholics in John Paul’s home ­country of Poland were struggling to cast off a communist regime. Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Dominican theologian from Peru, had written the seminal A Theology of Liberation (1971), from which liberation theology takes its name.

Hearing that some quarters of the liberation theology movement were allying with Marxist groups and calling for violent revolution, John Paul asked Ratzinger’s CDF to examine the writings of the liberation theologians. In these writings and in the “base communities” (­local Christian socialist communities) associated with the movement, Ratzinger perceived much that was truly Christian. But he also found elements that could not be reconciled with Christianity. He issued two instructions on liberation theology, in 1984 and 1986, warning against “­uncritical borrowings from Marxist ideology” and the “politicization of the tenets of the faith.” He met with leading figures, such as ­Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff, to discuss their ideas. The Vatican’s investigation of liberation theology received attention in the international press, solidifying Ratzinger’s reputation as “God’s Rottweiler.” Boff spoke sensationally of the grueling inquisition he had endured in Ratzinger’s office (an episode in which Ratzinger, who could have revoked Boff’s teaching credentials, instead directed him to spend a year on silent sabbatical). In fact, Ratzinger dealt as gently as possible with the liberation theologians, in light of his carefully reasoned conclusions about their writings. Gutiérrez was never censured or commanded to recant, though he was asked to reconsider some of his positions. And yet, for his pains, Ratzinger earned the inexhaustible hatred of Catholic progressives and Marxists.

The Church does not reject the goal of liberation. For the “liberty and glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21) is the goal and reason for God’s revelation as the truth and life of every human being, and every good theology explicates this theme. The elevation of man to God’s sonship in Christ and to God’s friendship in the Holy Spirit, including liberation from original sin, personal sins, and all the evils of body and soul, is the motive of God’s saving action in the creation, redemption, and perfection of man, whom he created in his image and likeness. Liberation theology at its best understands this. Its temptation, however, is to understand liberation in ­material terms, as the achievement of perfect economic and social conditions. It is unfortunate that many in the liberation theology movement mistook Christian salvation for Marxist self-­redemption.

Nor does the Church reject a concern for material conditions, especially the condition of the poor. Contrary to the vulgar Marxist charge—that Christianity cares only about inwardness and the afterlife, and thus neglects this world and the material-social existence of man—helping the poor was a Christian imperative centuries before the advent of Marxism. Gaudium et Spes states that the religious and the humanizing missions of the Church cannot be opposed. Only in the light of Christ, the God-man, can the unity of the universal orientation toward God and the concrete responsibility of man for God’s creation—nature, history, and society—be understood and implemented in the ethical-social dimension. Though Ratzinger’s instructions on liberation theology were decried as condemning all efforts on behalf of Latin America’s poor, he in fact affirmed liberation theology to the extent that it sought to help the poor.

He condemned the movement’s utopianism—its notion that perfect justice can be achieved in this life. The problems with utopianism are many. Ratzinger warned that “sacraliz[ing] the revolution” leads to “rapturous fanaticism” and violence: “when the impossible becomes the guideline of reality, then violence [and] destruction of nature, and humanity with it,” are ­unavoidable. Utopianism, moreover, is unchristian in its understanding of salvation. Christians understand that salvation comes not from the perfecting of the class structure of society, but from the conversion of individual hearts. (Of course, any social ethics derived from capitalism, the political and sociological opponent of communism, will have a similar basis in nihilistic materialism.) Clodovis Boff, brother of Leonardo, later admitted that many in the liberation theology movement were simply not concerned with either the Church or Christ.

And yet some were, and are. ­Gutiérrez, whom I count as a friend and mentor, never advocated violence or reduced salvation to economic justice. He insisted on the preferential option for the poor, a principle that arises from the ­priority the poor receive throughout the Bible. He was concerned to demonstrate the consistency of this principle with the tradition of the Church, as in his great work Las ­Casas: In Search of the Poor of Jesus Christ (1993), which finds an early model of liberation theology in an exponent of the School of ­Salamanca. As an element of Christian life, the option for the poor entails putting oneself in the position of the impoverished or powerless—understanding their lives, in order to improve their material conditions. Over the years I have taken many months-long trips to Latin America, where I have lived among the poor, getting to know their troubles. Gutiérrez’s theology is orthodox, just as their poverty cries out to heaven. Ratzinger recognized both facts, just as he recognized that what was unchristian in Marxism had to be condemned.

Drinking seawater can be deadly. We can consume it only if we take the trouble to desalinate it. A cleansing is required, just as grace presupposes nature but cannot complete it until nature is cleansed of the dross of sin and death.

The modern scientific disciplines provide valuable insights into nature and history. These insights are separable from the post- and anti-­Christian ideologies that arose alongside these disciplines and continue to influence the reception of their findings. Thus, we reject ­Auguste Comte’s positivism as a doctrine of salvation because he fails to recognize the supernatural goal. But that does not prevent us from recognizing the scientific discipline of sociology he founded, nor from being able to make its knowledge of social processes fruitful for Catholic ­social ­teaching.

Likewise, psychology and psychoanalysis, as methods for understanding human emotional life, must be distinguished from Freud’s mechanistic and atheistic view of man. And in Darwin’s theory of evolution, the insight into biological laws must be separated from the ideology of social Darwinism, which sought to justify the annihilation and exploitation of “inferior races” by invoking the “right of the fittest.” The two popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI not only exposed the intellectual contradictions of this atheistic ideology, but in their youths directly experienced its ­inhuman consequences.

As for Marxism, it began in an analysis of the Industrial Revolution and its tremendous social impact. But in its ideological form, in its militant atheism and its reduction of human beings to an amalgamation of social conditions, it contradicts the personhood of man in his relation to God and necessarily ends in the anti-humanism or post-h­umanism of political or technocratic totalitarianism. ­Communism is the history of its own refutation.

Faith is not a counter-­ideology. Faith, as infinite trust in God, is not an ideology at all. Faith is the complete surrender of the mind to God, and the union with him in the love that he himself is in the communion of ­Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Faith is profoundly compatible with all knowledge about the world that can be acquired by us in the light of our reason. The supernatural knowledge of faith presupposes the natural cognitive ability of man, who can draw conclusions about the existence and wisdom of God from the existence of the contingently existing world and its order (Rom. 1:20). The appearance of a gap between faith and science ­arises not from an actual contradiction of the revealed truths of the Christian faith, but from the ideological contamination of ­science.

It is the task of theology to demonstrate the inner unity of reason and faith on the way to de-ideologizing the sciences. The pre-Christian search for the ultimate secret of being in the god of Greek philosophy stands in a different relationship to the personal God of self-revelation in Jewish and Christian belief than do the modern ideologies of self-redemption. These ideologies reject the Jewish and Christian God as incompatible with human freedom. Therefore, the sciences contaminated by them must be detoxified before they can be reconciled with Christian faith.

Joseph Ratzinger’s engagement with the liberation theologians, though caricatured by the press as some kind of inquisition, in fact was a model of this detoxifying process. Far from rejecting liberation theology wholesale, Ratzinger separated what was “fully legitimate” in it from what was “dubious” and what was entirely “unacceptable.” He had friendly and admiring relations with many of liberation theology’s leading figures. I myself, strongly influenced by Gutiérrez, was appointed prefect of the CDF by Benedict XVI in 2012.

In his “Spiritual Testament,” written near the end of his life, Ratzinger remarked on the ­changes undergone by the scientific disciplines during his lifetime, which exposed the ideological bases of many assumptions: “Apparent certainties against the faith ­vanished, proving themselves not to be ­science, but ­philosophical interpretations only apparently belonging to ­science.” Likewise with ideological fads in ­theology and ­biblical studies, including ­Marxism: “I . . . have seen ­seemingly unshakeable theses collapse with the changing generations, which turned out to be mere hypotheses.” In the end, “out of the tangle of hypotheses, the reasonableness of faith has emerged and is ­emerging anew.”

Ratzinger could be confident that the Christian faith would endure as ideologies perished, thanks to the Christocentric nature of his theology and piety. Christ is the Logos, both the object of faith and the principle of intelligibility in creation. Ratzinger will remain alive in the Church’s memory like an Augustine redivivus, with his all-­important commitment to ­Jesus Christ. As the greatest teacher of the Western Church prayed to the God of his joy: “You created us for yourself and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you,” so Joseph ­Ratzinger ­concluded his earthly pilgrimage with the words: “Lord, I love you.” In the ­traditional piety of his Bavarian homeland and throughout Catholic Germany, this is the very first prayer that we, as small children, learn from our mother’s lips. Ratzinger’s theology was at one with his piety.

Gerhard Cardinal Müller is former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Image by Antonio Melis via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift